June 17, 2006
It was Brazilï¿½s first game and the fans demanded a team performance to match their own, which was by now in full swing. As the tanned girls in yellow and green bandanas started to move their hips, the whole bar swayed effortlessly on cue.
Screams of Braaazil, Braaazil rang out – even before kick off; flags waved, arms were raised in the air, the capacity crowd expected style, imagination, flair and of course, victory. The two Brazilian rastas on the bongos gauged the mood and pumped it up. The feel was pure South American, yet we were in an Aussie bar in King Street, Dublin where Chinese barmen serve Brazilian caipirinhas and empanadas to illegal immigrants. This is globalisation.
That morning, Charlie Haughey – a politician from a totally different Ireland – passed away. What relevance was he to this crowd or even to the majority of the Irish population – the under 35s? His Ireland was another place – an older society best evidenced by the faithful who queued for hours in a balmy Donnycarney on Thursday to pay their respects. Although there were a few local twentysomethings, with sprayed on River Island jeans, the vast majority of the mourners were more blue rinse than bottle-blonde. They had grown up with Charlie. They remembered him in the 1960swhen he was the choice of a new generation. Thursday was their day. It was a day to remember, to look back.
They lined up respectfully – people from all over Ireland. They exchanged stories of his good deeds. There was not a dissenter in the house – a bit like the 1986 Ard Fheis, I suspect. The mood was comfortable nostalgia, a sense of being in it together, captured by the name of the Donnycarney Community Centre – Le Cheile.
However, when push came to shove, old Irelandï¿½s hierarchy reinforced itself uncompromisingly on these ordinary people as it always did. By the time the tricolored coffin was marched up the aisle, the old class division had been reasserted. The top half of the enormous church was reserved for the Power Machine, while the hoi polloi – those who queued all day and voted religiously for Charlie all their lives – knowing their place, were gathered at the back. Up front, Fianna Fail grandees and property magnates embraced each other with bear hugs and double-handed handshakes. (Itï¿½s not for nothing that the Soldiers are called the political wing of the construction industry.)
All this was overseen by the Archbishop of Dublin, his predecessor and the Fianna Fail-backed President. It was almost like the old days. But the country has moved on, although the old guard are doing their best to cling on. For example, the night before, one of Charlieï¿½s creations – another relic of old Ireland – Social Partnership, unveiled plans to keep ï¿½ï¿½jobs for the boysï¿½ï¿½ for another ten years, despite the fact that less than a quarter of all workers are represented by the main parties in the talks.
According to the grand partnership scheme, the next ten years will be rosy and there will be lots of lolly around to solve all the ills of our society. These are great aspirations but whatï¿½s the reality?
The reality (or at least indicators of it) was evident in the meltdown in global financial markets we have seen over the past few weeks. The past few days have been volatile with traders and investors not knowing which way to jump. One thing is clear: the blue skies global forecasts of the beginning of the year are not coming through.
So what links these four separate issues ? What is the common thread linking the Brazilians in the bar; the political and property grandees at Charlie Haugheyï¿½s funeral; social partnership; and the global financial markets? The connection between the Brazilians and the markets is that they are a product of globalisation where the free movement of capital and the free movement of people are ultimately two sides of the same coin. This is the biggest challenge to Ireland in the future. How can we keep motoring along? What can we do here better than people elsewhere to allow us to earn cash? What are we going to live off? How can we prosper if the global picture worsens?
The scary thing is that these big questions have been left to the people at the top of the church in Donnycarney and the top of the table at Partnership. Think about it. Do you believe that they are aware of or have factored into their calculations what is going on outside? I donï¿½t! For example, Luxembourg, which is a slow-growing, rich country with a partnership model, has linked its partnership aspirations to international market vagaries. So if the price of oil rises by a few dollars, their partnership is renegotiated. Have we such break clauses in ours? No – all we have is uncosted aspirations.
Equally, do you think that a political party so keenly dependent on property magnatesï¿½ largesse is going to do anything to reduce our economyï¿½s dependence on construction? No way. So we continue to be a nation that produces less and earns its keep by selling house to one another, financed by other peopleï¿½s money. If we take construction out of the equation, we have no catalyst for growth.
Today the financial markets are worried about which companies and markets will thrive in the future; when they look at Ireland, what can they see that Ireland does well? In what areas are we world class? The turnover of three multinationals operating here (Dell, Microsoft and Intel) amounts to 20 per cent of our GDP; we have a dependency problem.
Where are the start ups? Where are the local entrepreneurs? They have been squeezed out by the hi-octane profits in the great property pyramid scheme. The higher the prices and rewards in this sector, the more people and capital will be sucked into it.
But property offers no long-term gain to the economy; no permanent wages; no upscale skills; no market share; no value added in terms of branding or marketing. On the other hand, it does drive up costs and wages and creates enormous debts which make us – as part of this speculative frenzy – dependent on prices going up. The biggest challenge facing the country is to wean ourselves off the property dependence and channel cash into productive investment without the entire thing going belly up. Will a government- bankrolled by the builders and facing an election – do anything about this? I doubt it.
And what about the social partners? Surely, if the unions were real socialists worried about the rights and conditions of young workers they would link pay agreements to house prices not wages. House prices for first time buyers are going up by ï¿½45,000 a year while average wages after this deal will rise by around ï¿½2800.Linking a deal to house prices would force the authorities to think and would also better represent the interests of worker. Will they do this? No way – it might cause people to stop and think and we could never have that.
In short, our elected leaders and their lackeys are not capable of thinking long-term. They are stuck in the local politics of Donnycarney, where politicians fix porches. The partnership deal ensures that our public services from trains to airport terminals and infrastructural development is determined by a 1980swork to rule type arrangement. This is called industrial peace; industrial inertia is more accurate.
All the while, the financial markets outside yell signals to us about what is likely to happen worldwide and we continue to ignore them. As for the Brazilians who are now in Dublin, where will they watch their team defend their likely title in the 2010 World Cup? Not here; unless we get our act together. Based on the evidence o fold Irelandï¿½s performance this week – whether in government buildings or on the Malahide Road, where history was reinvented, truths conveniently forgotten and old models and ideas clung to – itï¿½s hard to be confident.